story by Michael Tilley and Kim Souza
There is never a good time for a high-profile and deadly traffic accident involving a tractor-trailer rig, but efforts by the trucking industry to amend federal hours-of-service rules likely became more difficult when a Wal-Mart rig caused an accident in New Jersey that killed comedian James McNair and critically injured Saturday Night Live alum Tracy Morgan.
Morgan remains in critical condition following the June 7, 1 a.m., accident. Walmart driver Kevin Roper, 35, has been charged on several counts related to the accident. Some media reports suggest that authorities believe Roper was sleep deprived.
Wal-Mart officials have said they will cooperate with the investigation and help the victims.
“Safety is our absolute highest priority, but that is no comfort whatsoever to the families and friends who are suffering today,” Walmart U.S. CEO Bill Simon said in a statement on June 8. “We offer them our deepest condolences. We can’t change what happened, but we will do what’s right for the family of the victim and the survivors in the days and weeks ahead.”
But Wal-Mart is not conceding claims that Roper was driving beyond the legal limits.
“With regards to news reports that suggest Mr. Roper was working for 24 hours, it is our belief that Mr. Roper was operating within the federal hours of service regulations,” said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan. “The details are the subject of the ongoing investigation and we are cooperating fully with the appropriate law enforcement agencies. The investigation is ongoing and unfortunately we can’t comment further on the specifics.”
Wal-Mart also declined to provide The City Wire info on changes made within their truck fleet following the accident.
Just days prior to the accident in New Jersey, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, successfully pushed an amendment through the Senate Appropriations Committee that would block certain provisions – primarily the 34-hour restart rule – of the new hours-of-service rules implemented in July.
In pushing the amendment, Collins said it is “clear that the rules have had unintended consequences that are not in best interest of carriers, shippers and the public.” Collins’ effort would block what is known as the “two-night rest” rule.
Broadly, the Department of Transportation rules reduce a driver’s average maximum allowable hours of work per week from 82 hours to 70 hours, a 15% reduction.
“The 15% reduction in the average maximum allowable hours of work based on the new rule results from the restrictions on the use of the restart period,” explained DOT language on rule.
The DOT estimates that the new rule will boost annual trucking industry expenses by about $470 million, but said benefits from safety, driver health and other factors will produce an overall net economic gain of up to $280 million a year.
“The goal of this rulemaking is to reduce excessively long work hours that increase both the risk of fatigue-related crashes and long-term health problems for drivers,” noted a statement from the federal Department of Transportation.
Officials in the trucking industry have said the rules do nothing to promote safety and instead drive up costs for the industry which are then passed on to consumers.
Kevin Kelly, a spokesman for Collins, took issue with criticism of Collin’s amendment following the accident involving Morgan.
“To infer that the proposal that is being considered by the Senate had anything to do with the horrific crash is inaccurate,” Kelly told the Bangor Daily News in this report.
He added that the amendment would not have changed the fundamental rules that seek to prevent truck drivers from being sleep deprived.
TRUCKING INDUSTRY RESPONSE
American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves issued a statement following the accident designed to separate the push to amend hours-of-service rules with what happened to Morgan.
“The issue of highway safety, and in particular the safety of the trucking industry, has been at the forefront of the national conversation for several days due to a high profile incident in New Jersey,” Graves noted. “Second, I want to address several issues regarding the hours-of-service rules and driver fatigue generally. The hours-of-service rules – whether they are the current regulations, the pre-2013 rules, or the rules with changes we hope to see as a result of Congressional action – only place limits on driving and on-duty time and require that between work periods drivers take a minimum of 10 consecutive hours off-duty. But they do not dictate what drivers do during that off-duty period. No rule can address what a driver does in his or her off-duty time. The industry – including ATA, our member fleets, our state associations and the millions of safe, professional truck drivers on the road today – strongly believes that drivers must take advantage of their off-duty periods for rest and that drivers should not drive if they are fatigued.”
Chris Spear, the chief of legislative affairs for the American Trucking Associations’, said in a May 14 interview with The City Wire that one consequence of the new rule is that it places drivers on the road at peak times instead of letting them drive at hours when the general public is not on the road. Spear argued that the consequence is counter to the claim of federal regulators that safety is the focus.
The ATA declined to provide comment to The City Wire about how the Morgan accident has changed the hours-of-service debate among federal lawmakers.
Graves’ statement of June 8 also included the following measures the ATA supports to improve highway safety.
• We support a suspension of the controversial and unjustified restrictions on use of the hours-of-service restart provision, which alters driver sleep patterns and puts more trucks on the road during more risky daylight hours.
• We support mandatory use of electronic logging devices to track drivers’ compliance with the hours of service requirements.
• We support more aggressive enforcement of traffic laws to combat distracted and aggressive driving as well as restricting the speeds of large trucks to 65 mph with mandatory electronic speed governors.
• Fatigue, while an important safety issue, is a causal factor in less than 10% of all truck crashes, and ATA believes we need to do far more to address the other 90% of crashes.”
Large trucks accounted for 8% of the vehicles in fatal crashes, but only 3% of the vehicles involved in injury crashes and 4% of the vehicles involved in property-damage-only crashes, according to the most recent DOT report on highway safety. The report also found that 39.6% of fatalities are in passenger cars, 37.8% in light trucks and 11.1% from motorcycle accidents.
Graves has been on record saying that the truck driver was not at fault in a majority of accidents between large trucks and other vehicles.
The number killed in accidents involving large trucks during 2012 was 697, up from 640 in 2011, but below historical trends. The average annual number of deaths between 2012 and 2000 was 700.38. Deaths involving large trucks hit a record 1,432 in 1979
Following are the number killed in accidents (2012-2003) involving large trucks.
WAL-MART FLEET SAFETY
Wal-Mart, with the largest private fleet in the U.S., is closely watched when it comes to highway safety legislation and data. The company reports having at least 7,400 drivers, more than 6,100 tractors and 713 million miles driven in 2010 (most recent year the company provided data).
According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Walmart trucks were involved in 375 crashes in the past two years, with nine deaths and 129 injured. The federal data does not indicate who is at fault in the accidents.
The federal data also shows that Wal-Mart had 667.425 million vehicle miles traveled in 2013, among 7,222 drivers and 6,239 trucks.
The Bentonville-based retailer says it has one of the best fleet safety records in the U.S.
“Walmart is recognized by the industry as having one of the safest fleets in the country, driving 2.11 million miles per preventable accident. Walmart is also proud to have a DOT Recordable Accident Frequency of 0.342 per million miles,” the company notes on its website. “Walmart drivers must meet stringent pre-hire standards that include a minimum of 250,000 miles of driving tractor trailers and no preventable accidents in the last three years.”